Friday, November 26, 2021

Sondheim's Life: A Luminous, Enduring Gift To All!


The death of Stephen Sondheim, the great Master of the American musical stage is an incalculable loss to popular culture and to the art of musical theater. 
It'a a loss for civilized theater that challenged you, that made you think and feel and enter a world that could only be created by a musical genius. 
For Broadway, this is the loss of the last link to the Golden Age of musicals.
Our first encounter with Sondheim came in 1970 when we saw the groundbreaking musical Company. Yes, people called it the first "theme" musical but they weren't quite sure what to make of it. We were young and hardly seasoned in the ways of the world but we loved the show from the first moment to the last. 
Why? Well, it just captured a moment, a young man's journey, a yearning -- yes, but also a sense of cool detachment that was indicative of the time. Yet the piece was also timeless as evidenced by the fact that it has been revived again and again and is running on Broadway right now.
After Company, we were hooked. And so we saw A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures (a personal favorite), Sweeney Todd (his masterwork), Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods, Passion and, most recently Road Show. Later, we caught up with revivals of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (the first show for which he wrote both music and lyrics), Anyone Can Whistle (written with Richard Rodgers), Do I Hear A Waltz?, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along and Assassins. Of course, who hasn't seen Gypsy and West Side Story for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics?
No two Sondheim shows were exactly alike but they all touched upon Big Themes: the complicated relationships between parents and children; the tortured minds of destructive souls; the nature of evil; the ravages of time; the fickleness and foolishness of youth; the true meaning of fairy tales; brotherly love -- and hate; the relentless drive of obsessive love; the meaning (or lack thereof) of marriage; history's distortions; lust, greed, guile, guts and gullibility -- and, almost always, the longings of the human heart. And all of this, all of this staggering output spanned nearly 70 years!
In fact, Sondheim was said to be working on a new musical at the time of his death at age 91. If he wasn't creating, he wasn't alive. This was hi9s elixir, his tonic.
Sondheim always had a twinkle in his eye, even to the end. Most recently we saw him just before the COVID outbreak when City Center presented a production of Road Show. Sondheim appeared after the curtain came down to talk about the show and its various iterations and voyage to its present form. He enjoyed interacting with the show's young director. He was sharp, lucid, funny, self-deprecating and, as always, delightfully at home on a New York stage -- in a town and at a place where he spent most of his life. 
New York was his forever habitat and the stage was his natural milieu. 
He often remarked that he wasn't in the business of writing hits because that's not the way he wrote songs. He wrote for a particular character at a particular moment in a particular scene in a particular show. But he did write Send In The Clowns, Not A Day Goes By, Broadway Baby, The Ladies Who Lunch, Comedy Tonight and Losing My Mind, among others. And, of course he wrote the lyrics for more hit tunes than could possibly be mentioned including the haunting There's A Place For Us and the rousing Everything's Coming Up Roses.
Sondheim was the essence of Broadway and he loved the main stem, the Great White Way. Nowhere was that love more evocatively expressed than in Follies with songs that assembled a pastiche of every type of melody that has graced the musical stage. 
He took both his hits and his misses in stride. And that proved to be a wise and visionary attitude as some of his early also-rans turned out to be hits later down the road.
Our favorites? It's hard to even imagine where to begin but Follies, Sweeney Todd, Company and Pacific Overtures would have to be near the top.
If you probed Sondheim about his work he would often appear to be inscrutable. But he'd be the first to tell you there was no magic to it. It was hard work -- tedious work. And he worked very, very hard at it. It could be a tortuous, frustrating, even exasperating and very, very lonely business. All of that is best examined and revealed in Sunday In The Park With George.
For audiences, of course, there were moments in Sondheim shows that were nothing less than exhilarating. But there were poignant moments as well.
Many felt that Sondheim was enigmatic. But look at his life: the only child of divorced parents, he pretty much adopted Oscar Hammerstein's family as his own and Hammerstein became his caring and understanding mentor. 
From an early age, Sondheim likely knew he was different -- set apart, blessed with a certain talent and destined for a solitary adventure into an imaginary world. 
For the real of the story of Stephen Sondheim, explore his works. There, his life unfolds and is a luminous gift to all of us -- if you're willing to look, listen, savor and learn!

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